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Cook: Next in line? Bonifay aware that he could be fired if the losing continues

Sunday, October 29, 2000

Cam Bonifay said the hiring of Lloyd McClendon as the Pirates' manager is of "monumental importance" for the future of the franchise.

Later, he admitted it's pretty important for his future, too.

"I understand what losing means," Bonifay said. "Somebody has to be responsible. We've changed managers ... "

Bonifay is no fool. He knows who will be fired next if the Pirates keep losing. It won't be McClendon. It will be him.

"I would expect Kevin McClatchy to make a change," Bonifay said. "If we don't start winning soon, well, I've been here awhile ... "

Eight seasons as general manager.

Eight losing seasons.

It's not fair to blame Bonifay for all of those, of course. The first four or five, he worked under extraordinary financial restraints. The franchise nearly was forced to move before McClatchy rode in on his white horse and bought the team in 1996.

"During those years, I looked at myself as a caretaker just trying to keep something respectable on the field while the ownership thing was sorted out," Bonifay said.

Cam Bonifay survived another losing season; Gene Lamont did not. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Still, he's probably lucky he is signed through the 2003 season. Gene Lamont's contract ran out after this past season. That made it easy for McClatchy to replace him. It's a lot tougher to swallow three years of a contract.

"I am confident Cam will be able to get us back on track," McClatchy said. "Overall, I think, he's done a good job."

Bonifay has done some good things. The Brian Giles trade should go down as one of the best in Pirates history. He also traded for John Vander Wal, drafted Kris Benson, signed Mike Benjamin, found Todd Ritchie and Mike Williams as minor-league free agents and took Scott Sauerbeck in the Rule 5 draft.

But Bonifay also has made plenty of mistakes. Mike Kingery. Doug Strange. Pete Schourek. Wil Cordero. The virtual giveaways of Jon Lieber and Tony Womack. Gambling on Chad Hermansen and Aramis Ramirez last spring. Perhaps the long-term deals for Kevin Young and Pat Meares.

"We are in the human business," McClatchy said. "Sometimes, you make mistakes. Nobody is perfect."

That doesn't mean McClatchy isn't ready for fewer errors and more wins. Aside from 1997, when the Pirates overachieved and hung on in the division race until the final week, McClatchy's Pirates have been mediocre -- or worse. They lost 93 games this past season after he talked of them possibly winning 90.

"I don't worry about my job, I just wish we had a better record," Bonifay said. "The last few years, we haven't done as well as I'd like. I'm very disappointed about that."

Bonifay's judgment will be tested again in the weeks ahead. What does he do with Jason Kendall? Does he allow Jason Schmidt to go to arbitration? Does he pick up Francisco Cordova's option? Which free agents will he pursue now that McClatchy has jumped the payroll to $50 million? The plans are to add a pitcher or two, perhaps a right fielder.

"This is a big off-season for Cam," McClatchy said.

Bonifay's decisions might not be so critical if the Pirates' minor-league system had done a better job. What players has it produced during his watch? Other than Kendall and Benson?

"The one thing we haven't done is produce an impact offensive player," Bonifay said.

Or an impact pitcher, for that matter.

Benson, you say? He had better be terrific. He was the No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft.

McClatchy conceded the Pirates didn't always draft well in the mid-1990s but said Bonifay rectified the problem by replacing Leland Maddox with Mickey White as scouting director in 1998.

"I think anybody in baseball will tell you our drafts the past two years were pretty good," McClatchy said. "We have some outstanding talent in the minor leagues, but a lot of it is at the lower levels."

Bonifay said he won't change his draft strategy even if it ends up costing him his job.

"We're not going to take a more polished pitcher who has a chance to be a middle reliever or No. 5 starter if there's a more raw high school kid out there who could be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. I don't care if that player takes longer to develop. I might not be here to see it happen, but I want the next general manager to be able to see it. It's my job to get the best players in our system."

It would help if the Pirates' minor-league instruction was better.

"I can't say I'm satisfied with our fundamentals," McClatchy said. "That's one area Cam and his folks really need to focus on."

Bonifay said the Pirates' fundamentals "haven't been good enough." But he said that's a problem all through baseball. "A lot of other teams are making the same mistakes we are."

Did you see the New York Mets run the bases in the World Series?

Bonifay thinks the Pirates will improve significantly next season if only because McClendon will be more demanding than the easygoing Lamont.

"I just think he has the innate ability to lead. ... This could be a special person in the game of baseball."

McClatchy agrees. He also had McClendon No. 1 when he ranked the 10 candidates for the job.

"Hiring Mac was a real good start for us," McClatchy said. "But we've still got a lot of work to do."

Not we.

He.

Bonifay.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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